Registan has just published a moving appreciation of the late King Zahir Shah of Afghanistan by Dr Ehsan Azari:
A king who was borne as a prince and died as an ordinary citizen, the ex-Afghan king, Zahir Shah was the most democratic head of state in Asia for many decade until he was deposed in 1973. He ascended to the throne in 1933 when his father was killed by a student with a personal vendetta. During the time of his reign, all neighbouring countries of Afghanistan had been ruled by tyranny and colonial powers. Iran was under a despotic monarch, Raza Shah, with his notorious intelligence Savak, Pakistan was under a military dictatorship, and Central Asian countries, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, were all colonies of the Soviet empire.
In 1964, he formed a new constitution in the country which ushered in a democratic and parliamentarian government. Within an overall Islamic context, the constitution guaranteed woman emancipation, human rights, and freedom of press. But he failed to sign the legislation authorising the formation of political parties, despite its recognition by the constitution. This also helped the semi underground communist party to flourish across the country.
He advocated modernisation, reforms, and economic development. In his time Afghan women were more free than hey have been in the past three centuries of Afghan history. Women were not forced to cover themselves from head to toe with burqas and they had full access to education.
“When we were kids our family used to live in single room that was too long. When one began to cough all would cough, and if one fell ill all would fall ill. At elementary school in Kabul, our teacher beat us by rulers. When young I tried to learn Sitar but failed,” he said in an interview to BBC.
Zahir Shah was a soft hearted and peaceful leader who was tolerant of his political dissident. His subjects remember more of this than himself. (He was once driving past a busy street in Kabul when he saw a public water tap had been left open, he stopped and from his Choverolate window asked a person to close the tape and advised that it was not wise to leave water going down the street. The young tailor’s apprentice who knew he was the king shouted: “you are drinking the blood of a thousand poor people, it is better to stop that”. The king slowly drove past.
Watching all this, the tailor stormed out of his shop and began to beat the rude folk black and blue while crying: “What have you done? What will happen to us now?” A few weeks later, the young man recovered from his wounds and the king forgot everything.
Another time a man was once sentenced to death in Kandahar for killing someone’s brother. According to Islamic laws if the closest one to murdered victim pardons the accused, he can be saved from execution. The king took his hat off to the man and begged for the convict to be pardoned. But the vengeful man refused.
Sadly, there was a snake lurking amongst the royal court. His own fist cousin and brother-in-law, Daoud Khan, staged a bloodless coup and deposed the king while holidaying in Italy. Like Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Daoud had overweening arrogance, and after five years of an authoritarian rule he was brutally killed by a bunch of low-ranking communist and non-commissioned officers in a bloody coup, slaughtering nearly all of his family and close relatives in 1978.
Zahir Shah’s fall was not only the fall of his dynasty but the portent of the endless tragedy in waiting for his country. A year later the communist coup paved the way for the Russian genocidal occupation. A decade later, the Russian’s defeat and departure from Afghanistan, and the loss of one and a half million Afghans didn’t bring liberty and peace. Upon the toppling of the communist regime in 1992, the warlords and Islamist militants entered Kabul and avenged themselves upon the city and its tortured inhabitants with murder, pillage, rape, and destruction. Then the Taliban ushered in a galloping medieval theocracy, philistinism, and the terrorism of Osama bin Laden that reduced Afghanistan to the land of the dead.